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Astrology, Lettrism, Geomancy:

The Occult-Scientific Methods of


Post-Mongol Islamicate Imperialism
Matthew Melvin-Koushki*
In the Persianate world, the formative fourteenth to sixteenth centuries
witnessed an occultist arms race, as it were, for messianic and sacral forms
of political legitimacy, which reached a crescendo with the approach of
the Islamic millennium (1592 CE). As in any arms race, ruling dynasts
eagerly cultivated professional specialists in the relevant fieldto wit,
the art and science of walya, sacral power. The Mongol destruction
of the reigning, but brittle, caliphal-sultanic-jurisprudential model of
Islamicate societies in the mid-thirteenth century had created a vacuum
of legitimacy into which rushed this Shii-sufi quicksilver category, far
more flexible and adaptable than the model it replaced, and it soon became
hegemonic throughout the Persianate world. Securing access to this sacral
power became a driving concern of ruling and scholarly elites, whether
by way of sufism, occultism or Alidism, and often eclectic combinations
of all three.
The Safavids, to a greater degree than their Ottoman, Mughal and
Uzbek rivals, opted for this combinative strategy during the sixteenth
century. The militarised Shii-sufi messianic fervour of Shah Ism l
(r. 150124)self-proclaimed reincarnation of Al and incarnation of
Godand his fanatical Turkmen Qizilbash horde was indeed responsible
for creating a conquest state in Iran; but as a political framework it was far

Department of History, University of South Carolina. E-mail: mmelvink@sc.edu

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Sage Publications Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/Singapore/Washington DC/
Melbourne
DOI: 10.1177/0971945815626316

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too volatile to endure. Accordingly, Ism ls successor, Shah Tahmsb I


(r.152476), sought to routinise his fathers messianic charisma by turning
to orthodox Shiismand by throwing himself into the study of the occult
sciences (al- ulm al-gharba), especially geomancy ( ilm al-raml).1 The
Venetian diplomat Vincenzo degli Alessandri (d. after 1595) reported,
for instance, that Shah had not left his palace for a decade, so devoted he
was to practicing the science as substantiation for his claim to prophetlike
sanctity and vision.2 The close identification of occultism with both sufism
and Shiism remained in effect through at least the turn of the seventeenth
century, as contemporary scholarship attests. Most telling in this regard is
the schema offered by Ab l-Qsim Ansr Kzirn (fl. 1605), a prominent
Shirazi scholar in the service of Shah Abbs the Great (r. 15871629), in
his Ladder to the Heavens (Sullam al-Samvt), an eclectic work devoted
to constructing an intellectual-religious pedigree for his patron that is
simultaneously Twelver Shii, sufi and occultist. To this end, the Sullam
includes a long chapter taxonomising the occult sciences as a subset not
of natural or mathematical philosophy, as they were usually classified,
but exclusively of walya, here presented as sufi-style sainthood rather
than a Twelver theological category.3 Thus even the early Safavids, who
embraced Shiism precisely as a means of cornering the religio-political
market on walya, still considered occultism to be central to their imperial
claims, and the most effective means of routinising and harnessing the
messianic sufi charisma of Ism l as divine conqueror.
In this they were following the Timurid model to the letter. As Azfar
Moin has discussed, Temrs (r. 13701405) own irresistible charisma
as world conqueror was encapsulated in the title Lord of Conjunction
(shib-qirn), a purely astrological designation that entered regular use
from the thirteenth century onward.4 My research has shown that the same
scholar-occultists who made this title so central to Timurid universalist
imperial ideology relied on lettrism ( ilm al-hurf) in equal measure,
producing a highly distinctive dual astrological-lettrist platform that was
to remain popular among successor states for centuries as a primary means
1
Geomancy, the divinatory science of the sand, is Arabic cognate to the I Ching; its
alternative designation as terrestrial astrology refers to its heavy reliance on astrological
categories (see Melvin-Koushki, Persianate Geomancy).
2
Fleicher, Ancient Wisdom, New Sciences: 241.
3
Kzirn, Sullam al-Samvt: 81130.
4
Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: 2355.

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144 Matthew Melvin-Koushki

of signalling their Timurid legitimacy.5 That is to say, Temr, the Starlord,


was equally a Letterlord (shib-hurf), his glory inscribed in the text of
the Quran and mathematically encoded in the cosmos itself.6
To understand the full significance of the latter title, it must be borne in
mind that lettrism, by the early fifteenth century, was widely considered
to be not only the most Islamic of all the occult sciences, but also the
most Islamic, and the most universal, of all sciences in its status as both
the chiefest branch of the science of divine unity ( ilm al-tawhd) and
the science of the saints ( ilm al-awliy ) par excellence. So argued the
Greatest Master Ibn Arab (d. 1240), foremost theoretician of walya,
and his argument was first formalised in Ilkhanid courtly circles by Shams
al-Dn mul (d. 1352), whose Nafyis al-Funn f Aryis al- Uyn, an
encyclopaedic Persian classification of the sciences unprecedented in
its polish, scope and depth, served as the primary model for subsequent
encyclopaedists throughout the Persianate world. Most significantly,
therein mul posits sufism as the supreme Islamic science, equal to all
the other religious sciences combined, and lettrism as the supreme sufic
sciencethat is, the science of walya. At the same time, he largely
adheres to the standard Farabian-Avicennan classification of all occult
sciences (including alchemy, letter magic, oneiromancy, physiognomy and
astrology) as derivative natural sciences, with one important exception
geomancy, here reclassified as a mathematical science.7
By the sixteenth century, then, which featured the entrenchment of
millennial cosmocracy as the default form of Islamicate imperialism,
these three occult scienceslettrism, astrology and geomancywere
promulgated among and eagerly seized upon by ruling elites throughout
the Persianate world as a philosophically-scientifically rigorous means
of harnessing walya.8 Their intellectual cachet and complementarity
is testified to by Safavid-era philosophers like Shams al-Dn Khafr
5
This includes the Mughal emperor Shhjahn (r. 162857) most prominentlyhis
Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Timurid imperial architecture, being expressly designed as a
giant talisman.
6
While the term shib-hurf does not occur as such in the sources, I propose it here as
a heuristic for flagging the central importance of lettrist arguments to imperial ideology
construction from the Timurids onward.
7
See Melvin-Koushki, Powers of One.
8
By contrast, alchemy ( ilm al-kmiy ), while also vigorously pursued by certain scholarly
cadres, especially in the Mamluk and Ottoman contexts, was never de-esotericised and
politicised to the same extent (my thanks to Tuna Artun for this observation).

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(d. 1535), the leading planetary theorist of the century, who naturally
authored treatises on geomancy and lettrism both; therein he presents
them as sciences that allow the practitioner to explore, and intellectually
ascend, the great Chain of Being as proximate cause of all sublunary
and celestial phenomena.9 Likewise, Mr Dmd (d. 1630), a founding
member of the so-called philosophical school of Isfahan and intimate of
Shah Abbs, declared the basis of his metaphysical system as a whole to
be emanationist-lettrist neopythagoreanism: world as (Arabic) text.10
What is rarely acknowledged, however, is the fact that such lofty
(occult-)philosophising had very immediate political applications. The
greatest thinkers of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iran, including Mr
Dmd and his peers, feature in some contemporary sources as practicing
occultists in service to the Safavid state, master talismanists responsible
for protecting the realm and letter-magically directing its political
course. Most prominently among them, Shaykh Bah (d. 1621), the
hugely influential Safavid shaykh al-islm, master mathematician and
polymath extraordinaire, is remembered to this day as one of the most
powerful occultists and letter mages of his generation. But this function
was simply part and parcel of his larger role as a primary architect of
the new Safavid imperial culture, in terms material, legal, theological
and magical: as an architect, he helped to design and construct Isfahan
as imperial capital; as a jurist-theologian, he helped to transform the
unstable messianic-sufi framework of the early Safavid state into a stable
orthodox Twelver Shii imperial template; as an occultist, he strengthened
the state by constructing astral-letter-magical devicestalismans (sg.
tilasm)to protect and guide the ruling elite and defend against plague
and invasion.
Such were the invaluable services that charismatic scholar-occultists
offered their royal patrons throughout the early modern Persianate world.
Most importantly, it was precisely the neoplatonic-neopythagorean
cosmology these theosised philosophers codified that legitimised
Islamicate hierarchical cosmocracy, this lettrist Ibn Arabian monism that
fuelled henological imperialism.
As sketched above, the Safavids patronage of occultism was clearly
enthusiastic; yet by comparison to that of their imperial rivals, it appears
9

See Melvin-Koushki, Persianate Geomancy.


See Melvin-Koushki, Powers of One.

10

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146 Matthew Melvin-Koushki

almost half-hearted. Iranian scholar-occultists were even more in demand


at the neighbouring Mughal and Ottoman courts, both far wealthier and
more cosmopolitan than the Safavid, and many accordingly decampedto
seek their fortunes abroad. One example must here suffice: Hidyat
Allh Munajjim-i Shrz (fl. 1593), who served as court geomancer to
the Mughal-Timurid emperor Akbar (d. 15561605) at the turn of the
millennium. This Iranian migr composed an unusually comprehensive
manual of geomancy, Methods of Guidance (Qav id al-Hidya), for his
ambitious royal patron, reporting that he wrote this work in the month of
Farvardn in year 37 of Akbars Divine (ilh) calendarthat is, at the
spring equinox of the year 1001 (March 1593): the moment of dawning
of the Islamic millennium over the horizon of Akbars sacred body, itself
effulging forth the talismanic cosmocrators eschatological imperium
over all of India. The Qav id al-Hidya was thus one of the many
works the Mughal emperor commissioned to celebrate the millenniums
arrival. Immediately striking is the synthesising internationalism of
its approach:
Know (God aid you) that this noble science is pursued in every corner of the
earth, with four main schools of practice. Indians, Khurasanis, Transoxanians
and easterners generally rely on the ABDH cycle and the methods laid out in
the Shajara [u Samara] in their practice, a school I here term the Geomantic
East. Farsis, Iraqis, Gilanis and the like rely on the Occupation (sakan)
cycle [developed by al-Zant] and the procedure laid out in the Mafth for
deriving their readings, a school I term the Geomantic North. Maghribis,
Egyptians, Syrians and all Arabians favor the BZDH cycle, [established by
Luqmn, who named it for his son,] a school I term the Geomantic West.
There is a further method, extremely recondite, known as the Most Complete
(asahh), a school I term the Geomantic South; [it was developed by Tabas in
particular], and elite practitioners in every region perform divinations (kashf )
and miracles (karmt) [on its basis] This book, then, which I have titled
Methods of Guidance, offers a summary treatment of these four methods, with
some additional material, to enable anyone who reads and achieves a basic
understanding thereof to penetrate peoples innermost thoughts.11

The prologue of the work, moreover, is entirely astrological in its


symbolism, a design feature sure to catch the fancy of Akbar, a cardcarrying member of the ahl-i nujm u tansukh, star-worshippers and
11

MS Majlis 12563: 31516.

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reincarnationists.12 Indeed, as suggested, Akbars imperial identity is


perhaps best described as talismanic: his sacralised body as astral-lettermagical device marrying heaven to earth in order to rule the whole. His
infamous astrocratic court ritual, furthermore, should be understood
in the first place as an astral-magical operation, using tried and tested
procedures to harness celestial powers for specific, constructive ends
(and especially for syncretising Indo-Islamo-Chinggisid imperial ends,
as Audrey Truschke establishes in her essay).
Hidyat Allhs Methods of Guidance, then, like a host of other
systematising occultist manuals on this and other sciences produced
during the same century, testifies to the ambitious internationalism
and scholarly universalism that characterised Akbars empire-building
project. I therefore posit this outlook as the proper intellectual context for
Akbars celebrated, radically ecumenical doctrine of sulh-i kull, Universal
Harmonywhich, as Daniel Sheffield has shown, was itself derived from
the Islamo-Zoroastrian Azari doctrine of mzish-i farhang, mixing of
cultures, as developed byunsurprisinglyanother Shirazi occultist
who opted for India over Iran.13
In his pioneering study The Millennial Sovereign, Azfar Moin has
proven the dependency of Timurid and Mughal dynasts on occult scientists
for corroboration of their claims to cosmocratic divinity and henological,
eschatological imperialism. My own research suggests that the three most
important sciences in this early modern Islamicate imperial context were
astrology, lettrism and geomancy, which figured as an interdependent
intellectual trinity of sorts; they must henceforth be treated as such. The
most pressing task now is to establish the specifically Islamicate genealogy
of each science, from their Hellenic-Semitic-Persian-Indic inceptions
to the modern period, as the basis for larger questions as to the nature
and functioning of Islamicate societies in general, and High Persianate
societies in particular.
But we must proceed carefully: there be dragons. To close my
argument, I offer this reply to the question posed by Johan Elverskog at
the end of his essay in this dialogue: While the rest of Eurasia fell back
into the ancient patterns of competing local astrological systems of time
and space, was it only the Europeans who followed in the universalizing
12
13

Dihdr Shrz, Durr al-Yatm: 131.


Sheffield, Lord of the Planetary Court.

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148 Matthew Melvin-Koushki

footsteps of the Mongols? Given the rudimentary state of research on


early modern Islamicate intellectual history, it is dangerous to assume
that the Mongols had no true political or scientific heirs in Islamicate
Eurasia, but only in Christianate Europe. Something transformative did
indeed take place in the far west of the ecumene, eventuallybut it is
only because all the potentialities contained within the universalising
Mongol model were so fully actualised by Turko-Mongol Perso-Islamic
societies as a single cultural continuum, from the Timurids onwards, that
Europeans were finally able to join the era of globalisation inaugurated by
the Mongols in the thirteenth century. By the sixteenth century, Islamicate
empires had succeeded in establishing sovereignty over a full third of
the human race (some 160 million of 500 million souls), while also
presiding over the greatest expansion of Islam in history after the Arab
conquest itself (of the 1.7 billion Muslims alive in 2016, the majority are
descended from people who converted to Islam between 1300 and 1900).
At the same time, the population of the two largest Islamicate empires
of the era, the Mughal and Ottoman, remained majority non-Muslim;
more of the worlds Muslims lived beyond their bounds than within
them.14 Theexpansiveness, syncretism and universalism of early modern
Islamicate imperial ideologiesand the occult-scientific discourses that
drove themwere thus no mere rhetorical conceit, but a direct reflection
of unprecedented religio-cultural realities on the ground. True, despite the
symbolically potent, syncretic and flexible universalist religio-political
ideologies they developed, none of the early modern Islamicate empires
managed, in the end, to achieve the world domination they sought. Yet
those same ideologies drove them to become in their heyday the most
politically, culturally and economically cosmopolitan and religiously
complex societies of the early modern period.
Globalisation, in short, was first prosecuted under the radically
ecumenical Mongol bannerprecisely through its marriage to the reigning
universalist culture of the era, which had long since synthesised the
Hellenic, Semitic, Persian and Indic patrimonies of late antiquity: Islam.
With the fusion in western Asia of the first world religion with the first
world empire, mixing of cultures, a principle forcefully championed by
both, became the template for a new dispensation in human intellectual,
cultural and economic historythe early modern. In this world-historical
14

For data references see Melvin-Koushki, Early Modern Islamicate Empire.

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process, Europeans were initially but beneficiarieseconomically,


culturally and especially scientifically.
The mathematisation of the cosmos is here a case in point. This was,
as is well known, the central project driving the so-called Scientific
Revolution in Europe (more properly a mathematical revolution, being
largely confined to astronomy), and its culmination with Isaac Newtons
(d. 1727) Principia is still routinely taken to be the basis of European
scientific modernity. Yet this project was far less sui generis than current
scholarship supposes. It is my contention that Newtona committed
neopythagorean-occultistmust rather be considered an important
member of the Arabic astronomical tradition generally and an indirect heir
of intellectual developments in Timurid Iran and Transoxania specifically,
site of an unprecedented mathematical turn in astronomy and simultaneous
neopythagorean turn in metaphysics, with the ascent of lettrism to the
status of universal experimental science emblematising this new quest to
mathematise the cosmos.15 The first argument has recently been advanced
by historians of Islamicate science;16 but the second remains anathema,
this due to ingrained scholarly occultophobia, and so virtually none of
the research necessary to substantiate it has been done. Nevertheless, the
overall intellectual genealogy is clear: the quest to mathematise the cosmos
was first launched by astronomers and lettrists (and astronomer-lettrists)
in the employ of Timurid dynasts, who eagerly patronised these men of
(occult) science in conscious emulation of their Ilkhanid predecessors
(Ulugh Begs Samarkand Observatory being an upgrade of Hlegs
at Maragha); communicated to European intellectuals via Byzantium
by as yet unknown means; then pursued concurrently but separately in
the Persianate and Latinate worlds during the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries.17
That this quest did not result in scientific modernity in the postMongol Persian cosmopolis but did in the Latin is hardly a tale of Islamic
regress vis--vis Christian progress, but simply evidence of different
metaphysical and cultural priorities. Indeed, it is one of the great ironies
of history that European hegemony, heir to Mongol-Islamic radical
See Melvin-Koushki, Powers of One.
See, for example, Ragep, Copernicus and His Islamic Predecessors.
17
The Ottomans here represent the odd man outmore conservative Ottoman astronomers,
uncomfortable with the purely mathematical astronomy being developed in the Timurid east,
remained committed to Avicennan physics.
15
16

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150 Matthew Melvin-Koushki

ecumenism and imperial-scientific universalism, finally militated against


the mixing of cultures and the flights of mind that made it possible. For
racist nationalism, one could argue, is not the natural culmination of the
early modern transformation of the world, but its betrayal; and scientific
materialism is not the necessary upshot of the mathematisation of the
cosmos, but its parody.

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Falnama: The Book of Omens. London: 23243, 32930.
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